Narrow thinking ignores fallout from REF open access book mandate

Proposed changes to how scholars publish show little awareness of how they will profoundly reshape academic life, says David Lund

April 8, 2024
A young boy contemplates a smashed vase, with a ball sitting next to it
Source: peanut8481:istock

Extending the Research Excellence Framework’s open access requirements to long-form publications is a policy that initially seems like a good idea but unravels quickly once you give it any serious thought.

While the intention of reducing barriers to the dissemination of research is certainly noble, plans to make most academic books free to read will have lasting ramifications far beyond the remit of the REF, and we must surely question whether we wish to grant such reach to the UK’s four higher education funding bodies.

The supposed caveat softening the policy is the 24-month post-publication grace period before the open access requirement kicks in. This is presumably to avoid publishers insisting on open access payments to cover their costs upfront on the assumption that they will make the bulk of their sales from a title during the first two years. This is a big risk that I doubt many will be willing to entertain – I fully expect some kind of immediate open access payment to become standard.

This raises the question of how universities will fund those payments. One suggestion is that as all future academic books become open access, library funds could be diverted to pay for them. But hold on – just think about the consequences of this. First, it implies that libraries will stop buying printed titles, which opens up issues of accessibility and digital poverty (students without laptops at home will be disadvantaged), and there is clear evidence that reading in print leads to more information retention; is it within the remit of the REF to digitise our access to knowledge?

Campus resource collection: Unlocking the potential of open access and open research

Second, it raises the issue of curation. How would libraries help students wade through endless lists of possible open access titles online? Again, is it within the REF’s remit to fundamentally change the function and purpose of a library?

Third, what about books from non-academic publishers? At any university with an arts provision, and particularly in specialist institutions, a huge proportion of the library stock comes from trade publishers, such as Taschen or Thames & Hudson. If funds were diverted to pay for open access publication, where would the money come from to purchase non-OA titles?

It doesn’t stop there, either. What about authors? If all academic monographs are published under open access agreements, authors will receive far less in royalties. While no academic gets rich off their work, the small amounts it generates are nonetheless an important recognition of the enormous amounts of their free time that an author spends in the production of a book.

And if all books are paid for upfront (in essence, vanity publishing for academics), future sales would have no bearing on their publisher’s likelihood of accepting another, so what incentive would an author have to promote their book and disseminate its findings to the wider public?

The proposal also has enormous implications for publishers, and I ask again: does the REF have the remit to utterly rewrite the entire business model of academic publishing?

And booksellers, too – how will Blackwell’s survive, for example, if all the new books it stocks are freely available on the internet? Do we not value bookshops and the serendipitous discoveries we make in them?

Maybe I am being deliberately provocative to highlight the degree of REF mission creep. But we must ask whether it is right that what is effectively a glorified performance matrix should force such huge changes well beyond its aims and remit.

There are also much better ways of making research more widely accessible – public engagement activities, open lectures, podcasts, films, exhibitions and so on – than simply insisting that all academic books be free, which is what the academic euphemism of open access really means.

Finally, of course, if universities have to pay for a book to be published in the first place, there will be less funding available for these activities. My underlying fear is that this proposal will ultimately turn the relationships between academic authors, universities and publishers into a highly competitive marketplace, in which universities with deep pockets will push out those without, while academics will be forced to compete for institutional funding far more intensely than at present.

With the added potential to transform the function of libraries, rewrite the economic basis of academic publishing and threaten the last surviving academic bookshops, I struggle to see how this creates an environment that supports the dissemination of high-quality research.

David Lund is a historian, author and senior lecturer at Arts University Bournemouth.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (5)

You missed the point. It is all about opening access to the whole world for academic work. The small loss of royalties and the effects on already struggling bookshops are insignificant in relation to the importance of this global task which shifts the focus from authors to readers. In addition there is an entire architecture across the world of academic led presses, usually cheaper for BPCs and more convivial, that have nothing to do with the big corporate models we currently suffer in publishing. And they are quite capable of doing print-on-demand as required.
Idealistic nonsense of the kind that drives the whole of the open access agenda. The argument that publicly funded means publicly acessible is a non sequitur one since areas such as defence cannot be made available. Also, this policy hands the whole of our work over to the likes of China for free (no, actually at a cost to the author)!
I agree with the author's comments here on all levels. I would also add another issue - one which I don't understand not being more central to the conversation: the parochial nature of REF. Yes, I am based in UK, but my research profile is international. If my institution cannot afford to stump up the OA funds for my next book, then what happens is doubly problematic- I either write a book anyway, which is non-REF-able and therefore my employer may raise an eyebrow, or... I don't write the book and my international standing becomes diminished. My discipline is largely centred in North America, where monographs have much currency for one's academic status. If UK scholars are hindered from writing them, is this not just another diminution of our international reach? This policy must be limited to revised. REF definitely seems to be suffering from a bad case of overreach to dictate the best way for our work to be disseminated, irrespective of the expectations and practices of individual disciplines.
Public harrassment of intellectuals used o be the preserve of tin-pot dictatorships. Between them the REF and OA-movement have turned it into a global spectacle. Finding time and brain-space for any academic writing let alone a book is difficult enough, however now there an unseemly scrabble over how and where publication is permitted. Please leave it up to the individual. Those have the resources and preference for the OA route are free to use it. Those for who OA is an anathma - yes we exist - can go our own way. Otherwise tin the new dark age the only people publishing academic texts will be non-academics
Two points missed by harrowagenda21. Just over two thirds of the world’s population have access to the internet meaning nearly one third without access. Two thirds of the number with access use it for social media. Less than half of the world’s population own a PC or laptop so a significant number of those using social media presumably use a smart phone. Using the latter for reading a book is less than ideal. So, providing access to academic books to the world will not be met by the REF policy in the medium or even longer term. Second, by what right do the REF designers produce the changes listed by David Lund? As is stated in the article, REF is a limited UK universities performance metric not an international or even national policy on book publication practices. As to harrowagenda21’s implied criticism of corporate publishers, my recent experience of needing to supply free soft copies of my books for assessment by a panel of peers found such corporations to be freely willing to provide those soft copies for no charge. Those working on academic publishing for the corporate publishers are in my experience understanding of the work and life of academics and sympathetic to our needs.